Elizabeth (Betty) Molteno (1852 - 1927) was one of Olive Schreiner’s closest and most loved friends, and there are a very large number (c450) of extant letters to her from Schreiner. She was the eldest daughter of Sir John Molteno, who had been the first Prime Minister of the Cape Colony following responsible government; and Caroline Murray nee Molteno, another of Schreiner’s friends, was her sister. Betty briefly studied at Newnham College, Cambridge, and went on to become a school teacher, although she had a private family income and did not need to work from a financial point of view. She eventually became the headmistress of the Girls Collegiate School in Port Elizabeth from 1890 to 1899, where she met her partner Alice Greene; their relationship, with some ups and downs and ‘straying’ on Betty’s part, lasted until Greene’s death in 1920.
Schreiner met Alice Greene and Betty Molteno at some point in the early 1890s, most likely in 1891 at Matjesfontein. Schreiner’s first letter to Molteno dates from February 1891 and comments, “I was so glad to see you looking so much stronger when you went back”, suggesting they had spent some time together. Their friendship quickly flourished, and Schreiner also became friends with Alice Greene. Both women visited Schreiner for a week at her home in Kimberley in mid-1896, by which time Schreiner described them in a letter to Fan Schreiner as her “great chums”. Schreiner stayed with Alice and Betty in Port Elizabeth for some days in 1898, and they visited her at Johannesburg in June 1899, shortly before the outbreak of the South African War. During the war both Betty and Alice strongly sided with the Boer cause, and partly as a consequence of this Betty Molteno decided not to renew her lease on the Collegiate School, with there having been some opposition to her doing so previously. However, a newspaper cutting which Betty sent to Schreiner in 1899 from the Cape Daily Telegraph included letters from old and present Collegiate girls denying that Molteno ever spoke about politics at school, as she had apparently been earlier accused of in The Advertiser newspaper.
Betty Molteno and Alice Greene left Port Elizabeth for Cape Town in June 1900, where they both became involved in relief work to assist Boer women and children in the concentrations camps established by the British military during the war. Betty Molteno (along with Alice Greene and a number of other friends of Schreiner’s) contributed to the collection of anti-imperial and anti-war poems, Songs of the Veld, originally published in 1902 and initially banned in South Africa. In the winter of 1903, Alice and Betty spent some months with Schreiner on the farm Uitk˙k near Fraserburg Road in the Cape. Alice Greene returned to England in 1904 and Betty followed her a few weeks later. They spent some time travelling in Europe together, but when Alice returned to Britain where she cared for various members of her extended family, it seems that Betty spent some extensive periods travelling and living in Switzerland and elsewhere. However, their relationship continued, and in April 1912 Betty and Alice returned to South Africa, only travelling back to England in 1916, where they once resumed their face-to-face friendship with Schreiner, although their correspondence had continued through the years when they lived in different countries from one another.
In London, Betty Molteno rented part of the flat at 9 Porchester Place where Schreiner lived from early April 1917 until August 1920, although she seldom used her rooms. From Schreiner’s comments to her, it seems likely that Molteno rented the extra rooms so that Schreiner might have more space, rather than primarily for her own convenience. However, Betty did use her rooms at Porchester Place from time to time when she was not with Alice at the Greene family home in Cornwall, and this enabled Schreiner to see her when her own health prevented her from travelling much. Molteno, with Alice’s sister Helen and sister-in-law Eva, cared for Alice Greene as her health deteriorated, and she outlived both Greene and Schreiner by seven years. When she died in 1927 she was buried with Alice Greene at Trevone in Cornwall.
Given the very large number of letters from Schreiner to Betty Molteno, it is difficult to provide an overall assessment or flavour of these. It is clear that from the early 1890s until her death in 1920, Schreiner regarded Moltebo as one of her closest and most beloved friends. She frequently addressed her as ‘Dear Heart’ in letters, and her letters are filled with expressions of love and affection. In 1918 she wrote to Alice Greene, “All Betty has been to me I can’t tell you. Her beautiful wonderful individuality is such a joy to me. It seems almost all that is keeping up my faith in Humanity now. What a wonderful soul it is.” It is at times difficult to disentangle Schreiner’s letters to Betty from her letters to Betty and Alice, and at times too her relationship with them as a couple seems inextricable from her relationship with them as individuals. In a 1906 letter, for instance, Schreiner writes to Alice Greene, “It is so beautiful that I am able to love you both so that my love for one never seems interrupted by my love for the other, and I know you both love me.”
There is an interesting relationship between Schreiner’s epistolary and face-to-face relationship with Betty Molteno. In fact their relationship was significantly epistolary, with face-to-face meetings as discussed above. It also seems that in her letters to Molteno, Schreiner at times expressed feelings and shared confidences that she probably did not speak about in their face-to-face meetings. In particular, her letters to Molteno at times reveal glimpses of the troubles in her marriage to Cronwright-Schreiner, a subject around which Schreiner normally maintained an absolute silence. For example, in a 1904 Schreiner powerfully writes, “As I sat writing a terrible blow has fallen on me. ((this is for you and Miss Greene only)) Cron came in and told me he had to leave for Cape Town tonight he has to go tonight. De Villiers the little attorney here is bringing an action against him for one thousand pounds damages for some things Cron wrote about him to the chief sherrif in Cape Town.” Later in the same letter she adds, “You see I couldn’t leave him [Cronwright] any more than a mother could leave her little child. He will always be in trouble. If we weather this something else will come soon.” A few months later she writes rather anxiously, “I have never said to any humanbeing what I said to you: and I sometimes feel so distressed that I did. Great is silence.” It is also apparent that Betty helped Schreiner financially at times by lending her money, although on a number of occasions she appears to have sent Schreiner money unasked, only for Schreiner to return it unused with thanks.
Schreiner’s letters to Betty Molteno occasionally touch on her work and writing, but their predominant focus is on both the quotidian of everyday life and the important political matters on which they agreed, in particular the pro-Boer movement and then later the ‘native question’. Betty was interested and actively involved in ‘native’ politics in South Africa, for example through her activities behind the scenes with Gandhi. However, Molteno, and in particular Alice Greene, initially at least did not share Schreiner’s feminist politics and were even opponents of women’s suffrage, with this occasionally a source of friction between them. However, from later letters it appears that Betty Molteno was eventually won over to the suffrage movement after attending various lectures and speeches in London.
After Alice Greene’s death, Schreiner clearly anticipated that she and Betty Molteno would spent more time together; however, the often elusive and rather fey Molteno instead became immersed in spiritualist and related circles. Schreiner’s disappointment is quite clear and consequently her later letters to Molteno make for quite sad reading, although clearly Schreiner’s affection remained undimmed.
For further information see:
Barham, John E. (ed, 2007) Alice Greene, Teacher and Campaigner: South African Correspondence 1887 - 1902 Leicester: Matador
Marthinus van Bart (ed, 2008) Songs of the Veld and Other Poems: English oems on the Anglo-Boer War’ Kennilworth, South Africa: Cederberg Publishers